Nashville holds a special place in saxophonist Billy Pierce’s heart. Even though the bulk of his musical experiences have taken place in other cities, one of the reasons he’s a jazz player today is because of a Nashville performance he witnessed by alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly in 1967. “His playing was a really gut-level experience,” Pierce said in a recent phone interview. “At that point, I knew that playing jazz was something that I wanted to do seriously, rather than just sort of dabbling.”
Pierce, who’ll be appearing Saturday as part of the second-annual Main Street JazzFest in Murfreesboro, has made substantial contributions to the jazz world, but he has also backed such soul greats as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Isaac Hayes. “I actually had to work much harder in the beginning to establish myself as a jazz player,” he remembers. “I’d grown up listening to blues and R&B and enjoyed that music tremendously. I still play dance music at times and enjoy all kinds of music.”
Even if his name doesn’t appear frequently in jazz magazines, and even if he doesn’t record for a major label, Pierce still ranks among the genre’s most respected bandleaders and session musicians. But he isn’t bothered by the lack of attention. As he points out, “Jazz today in many cases isn’t driven by the people you can read about in publications, or whose records are all that accessible. The scene is in many ways still healthy, but there’s a lot going on these days that’s underground.” For all the activity in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, he points out, “there are a lot of great musicians doing things in small places.”
Pierce solidified his reputation during the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he worked extensively with pianist James Williams. It was during this time that he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, inheriting the saxophone seat that had previously been occupied by such greats as Hank Mobley, Benny Golson, and Wayne Shorter. “Playing with Art Blakey was a dream come true,” he says. “He was one of the real icons and giants of music, and an exceptional player. You couldn’t help but learn so much traveling with a band like that, and being around someone as knowledgeable and open as Art Blakey.”
From there, Pierce subsequently recorded, toured, and/or played with other superstar artists, including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Art Farmer, drummer Tony Williams, and pianist Hank Jones. In the ’80s and ’90s, he also began cutting his own albums, on which he was joined by veteran drummers Roy Haynes and Alan Dawson along with emerging players such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard and pianist Mulgrew Miller. His most acclaimed ’80s LP was William the Conqueror, a 1985 Sunnyside release that spotlighted his powerful tenor sound.
For the past 15 years, however, Pierce has spent more time in the halls of academia than on the bandstand. He’s currently in his second stint as a faculty member at Berklee College of Music, one of the nation’s most prestigious music institutions. Last year, he was appointed chair of the woodwind department, a position that has allowed him to advance his strong opinions about the value and importance of jazz education.
“It’s been said for a long time that [academic training] isn’t the best means of preparing someone for a jazz career, and on a certain level that’s true,” he says. “The best preparation would be learning from a jazz master on the road and on the bandstand, but you have to be realistic. In today’s environment, there just aren’t that many places for young musicians to learn either their instrument or the jazz aesthetic, except in school.
“Virtually every great player who’s emerged in recent years is someone from an academic background. Jazz today is incubated in college..., and it’s necessary because you just don’t have the venues for getting started that you had 30 years ago when I was learning the ropes.”
After so many years at the front of a classroom, Pierce has some simple advice for aspiring players, particularly those interested in entering highly competitive institutions such as Berklee. “You’ve got to really practice your tail off and come prepared,” he says. “You have to listen to the music and really know the history. That’s one problem I see in young musicians todaya lot of them don’t really listen. You must immerse yourself in the music and find a way to establish your own personality and sound within the framework of what you hear.”
Even though he’s busy as a teacher and administrator, Pierce hasn’t completely deserted playing. His most recent release, Froggin’ Around (CIMP), teams him with a pair of Canadians, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Chris McCann. His last session released on an American label is Epistrophy (Evidence), a collection of Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins compositions that was initially recorded for a Japanese imprint in the mid-’90s.
Though once known for his versatility as a saxophonist, Pierce is currently playing only tenor and soprano. “I sold my baritone and don’t play either the alto or the flute much anymore. It was just a personal decision, although [to other players] I would say that versatility and instrumental proficiency seem to be coming back now. There are a lot of pit bands and traveling shows touring, and it would be smart for anybody playing music to learn how to play different styles and learn a lot of songs.
“This is a business, and unfortunately there aren’t very many people who can make a living just playing jazz. If you can, you’re very, very fortunate.”
In addition to Billy Pierce, who will play with the James Williams Trio on Saturday, the JazzFest lineup contains several local and regional performers. The featured headliner is vocalist Marlena Shaw, who has enjoyed success both as a solo artist and as a singer with the Count Basie Orchestra (with whom she recorded a hit version of keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”). She’ll also be backed by the James Williams Trio.
Local performers scheduled to appear include vocalist Sandra Dudley, who’ll be singing with the Bruce Dudley Quartet, and the Brazilian-styled Ritmos Picantes, featuring pianist Lori Mechem. The two Murfreesboro ensembles will also be on the bill: the MTSU Blues Crusade Jazz Ensemble, led by director Leonard Foy, and gospel vocalist William Richardson, who’ll be backed by the band Company.
Rounding out the bill are Louisville vibraphonist Dick Sisto and his group, and the Armed Forces Jazz Band, stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Festivities kick off with a traditional New Orleans Jazz Parade down East Main Street in Murfreesboro at 11 a.m. on Saturday. For additional details, call 895-1887.
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